“FITCHLEY’S SPORTING GOODS,” Aaron answered the phone for what felt like the millionth time that day.
A voice blared in his ear. “These damned straps won’t come off!”
Aaron recognized the caller right away: Jerry Bryson, ninety-four years old, hard of hearing but still amazingly sprightly for his age with the spirit of adventure, if not the manual dexterity, of a much younger man. He’d been in the store earlier that afternoon to pick up a life jacket for the canoeing trip he was taking with his family next weekend.
“Mr. Bryson, you see the buckles? You just need to press in on the sides.”
“Reba!” Ida Mae Saunders called out from the dressing room—or shouted, actually, if you were going to be technical about it.
“Reba isn’t here today, Mrs. Saunders,” Aaron called back to her. “Remember I mentioned that when you first came in?”
Ida Mae wasn’t forgetful so much as she had a hard time accepting what she didn’t want to hear. She’d come in to try on bathing suits, telling anybody who would listen that she’d joined the gym out at the community college and planned to start swimming a mile a day if it killed her. She’d had her heart set on Reba helping her pick out the right suit.
“Reba?” Mr. Bryson shouted into the phone. “What does Reba have to do with anything? I don’t know why they have to make everything so dang fiddly these days. You can’t do a thing with stuff if you’re a day over twenty. What do these life jacket people expect me to do? Spend the rest of my days looking like I’m about to jump overboard?”
“Try to take it easy, Mr. Bryson,” Aaron said in his most soothing tone. “Is one of your grandchildren around who might be able to help you?”
“I don’t want them kids thinking their old grandpop can’t do things for himself. So don’t you go calling them, Aaron Fitchley, you hear me?”
“Okay, okay,” Aaron said. “Just—”
“I can’t tell if this bathing suit does a thing for me,” Ida Mae complained loudly from the dressing room. “I don’t know why Reba couldn’t come to work today.”
“Give me just a minute,” Aaron told her, “and I’ll see what I can do to help you.”
Bertie Simmons, an old friend of Aaron’s father and frequent loiterer at the sporting goods store, lounged on a stool behind the counter. “Why is Reba out today?”
“Her kids have the flu,” Aaron told him distractedly, and then he said into the phone, “How’s it coming there, Mr. Bryson? You having any luck yet?” If Jerry couldn’t get himself free, Aaron would have to go to the rescue. That meant closing up early, since he was the only one working today and Bertie had proven on more than one occasion he didn’t have much of a knack for operating a cash register.
A few more customers approached the counter, no one Aaron recognized, most likely tourists. Mortonsville was situated in a nice little spot in the Colorado high country with a lake just outside of town. They had campers passing through in the summer and skiers all winter.
“I’m kind of in a hurry,” one lady said.
Aaron nodded and started ringing up her purchase, the phone crooked against his shoulder. He could hear the distant sounds of cursing, which suggested Jerry Bryson was still waging war against the life jacket.
“Your daddy would have told Reba she had to come on in here if she wasn’t sick herself,” Bertie said conversationally, as if he were just making an observation, not a judgment.
In the seven months since Aaron had taken over the family business, he’d heard a lot about how his father would have done things, much of it in the almost daily phone calls from his parents. Apparently they were having some problems transitioning into the carefree life of fun and relaxation they’d retired to Florida to enjoy.
Bertie shook his head. “I know, I know. You couldn’t be hard-hearted with Reba. You’re a good boy. Going to be just like your daddy and your granddaddy, a real pillar of the community. Yep. That’s what I always tell them down at Nona’s Luncheonette.”
Aaron smiled weakly. “Thanks, Mr. Simmons.” He was thrilled to be the topic of conversation among the town’s most unapologetic gossips—not.
“Well, if no one is coming in here to help me, I’ll just have to come out there,” Ida Mae huffed in exasperation.
She threw back the curtain of the dressing room and stormed out. Everybody in the store turned to look and then couldn’t seem to stop staring.
“I’m thinking it’s a tad small.” Ida Mae plucked at the strap of the Speedo, her forehead scrunched up in a thoughtful frown.
A tad was rather an understatement. Most of Ida Mae’s underwear hung out where the swimsuit was cut high along the thigh. Aaron was pretty sure he was seeing parts of her no one had laid eyes on since Mr. Saunders had passed on to the great ice cream social in the sky.
“I feel certain we’ve got something that will work better for you,” Aaron told her. “That style doesn’t look all that comfortable.”
Ida Mae shook her head. “Like wearing a rubber band. I don’t know why they make things so persnickety these days.”
“Here.” Aaron passed the phone to Bertie. “Take over for a minute.”
“What do you want me to do about it?” Bertie asked, trying to push the phone back at Aaron.
“Just—” Aaron waved his hand. “Try to be encouraging.”
“How about if I tell Jerry what an old fool he is? Is that encouraging enough?”
Aaron shot him a be nice look and hurried off to help Ida Mae. He searched the racks of swimsuits and found one with a much fuller cut.
“You ready for this other one?” he called in to her.
“Hold your horses. It’s like fighting the devil trying to get this thing off.” Aaron could hear rustling and thumping and one rather loud thud, and then Ida Mae’s pale hand shot out from between the curtains, the rejected swimsuit dangling from her fingers. “All right then. Let me have that other one.”
He traded swimsuits with her. Again he could hear rustling, but thankfully no thumps or thuds this time.
“Oh, this is going to do me much better.” Ida Mae pushed back the curtain. “What do you think?”
Aaron nodded. “I think you’re going to swim laps around those other people at the pool.”
Ida Mae broke into a big, pleased smile. “I think you’re right.”
Aaron hurried back up front to Bertie. “How’s Mr. Bryson doing?”
Bertie shook his head sadly. “Still an old fool.”
“Not helping.” Aaron took the phone back. “Mr. Bryson? You still there?”
He heard scuffling in the background and then a resounding “Glory be,” and then Mr. Bryson’s too-loud voice boomed over the line, “I finally taught the blasted thing a lesson.”
“That’s good.” Aaron smiled to himself. “I’m sure you showed that life jacket who’s boss.”
“Darned right I did,” Mr. Bryson agreed, and after a pause, added a little sheepishly, “I might have to come in on Monday and get a new one.”
“We’ll be open until six,” Aaron told him.
Ida Mae finished changing and brought the swimsuit up to the counter as Aaron hung up with Mr. Bryson. He got her sorted out with the goggles, swim cap, pool shoes, and earplugs she needed. She gave him a jaunty wave on her way out, the bag dangling from her wrist. “Tell your mom and dad ‘hi’ for me when you talk to them.”
Aaron checked the time on his cell phone: eight o’clock, closing time, finally. He nudged a reluctant Bertie Simmons toward the door.
“I could help you straighten up,” Bertie said, dragging his feet.
Translation: my wife’s mother is visiting, and I really don’t want to go home just yet.
Aaron shooed him on out. “Thanks, Bertie, but there’s not much to do. I’ve got it under control.” Bertie’s notion of “helping” involved chattering away about the latest news he’d picked up down at Nona’s and getting underfoot while Aaron desperately tried to finish up for the night.
He locked the door, leaned his back against it, and let out his breath. It was quiet for the first time all day. No phone ringing. No one wanted anything. And for a few hours, anyway, nobody would be reminiscing about the good old days when Aaron’s father and grandfather had run Fitchley’s Sporting Goods.
A loud knock broke the silence, and Aaron nearly jumped out of his skin. He whirled around and found his best friend Dale Lambert grinning at him from the other side of the door. Aaron’s pulse did a little hop, skip, and jump. Dale had been making Aaron feel hot and tingly since he hit puberty, a fact Aaron carefully kept to himself. In fact, he’d devised a “Big List of Rules For Hiding That You’re In Love With Your Best Friend” just for this purpose. Rule #4 was: seeing the guy really shouldn’t make your heart beat faster, so just pretend it doesn’t.
“You going to let me in, buddy?” Dale rattled the lock. “Or am I going to have to talk to you through this glass?”
Aaron opened the door, and Dale sauntered inside. He had on an ancient Metallica T-shirt and jeans he’d probably owned since high school, and as usual, the sight of him made Aaron’s mouth go dry. He was tall, tan from working outside, with messy dark hair, big brown eyes, and dimples that turned the girls he flirted with into puddles of JELL-O. At the moment, he wore an innocent expression that Aaron knew from long experience meant nothing but trouble.
Early on in their friendship, Dale had decided it was his mission in life to keep Aaron from becoming a total stick in the mud. Under Dale’s auspices, Aaron had tasted his first beer (because Dale had dared him to), experienced his first run-in with the Park County sheriff’s office (because Dale insisted spray-painting graffiti on the wall of the Mortonsville High gym was a rite of passage), and been fired from his first after-school job making deliveries for old Mr. Lindsey at the greengrocer’s (because Dale had convinced him playing hooky just once wouldn’t be a problem).
“I can’t go to Dizzy’s,” Aaron said preemptively before Dale could start up the usual strong-arm tactics. “I’ve still got stuff to take care of tonight, and I have to work tomorrow.”
Dizzy’s was the raucous town dive where Dale spent his off hours—and actually much of the time he was supposed to be working. Aaron had never stepped through the doors down at Dizzy’s without straggling out as the sun came up. It was just that kind of place.
“But tomorrow’s Saturday!” Dale sounded as indignant as if Aaron had said he’d be working on Christmas.
Aaron rolled his eyes. “It’s also our busiest day of the week, which you know perfectly well.”
“Come on, Aaron. You’re missing out on the summer girls! The other night I hooked up with these two blondes, synchronized swimmers from Colorado State. Man, were they limber, and they liked to do everything—and I do mean everything—together.” He waggled his eyebrows.
“You have the worst taste in women.” Aaron did his best not to sound bitter about it. Rule #9 said: you’re not supposed to be jealous of the girls who sleep with your best friend. It was always the hardest rule to follow.
Dale laughed. “At least the ones I pick are fun. What was the name of that girl you dated in college? Karen?”
Aaron’s jaw tightened. “Carla.”
“Man, was that girl uptight.” Dale shook his head sadly. “Whatever happened to her?”
I brought her home to meet you. Carla had spent one night out with them at Dizzy’s, a pinch slowly forming between her eyebrows as she looked from Aaron to Dale and back again. She’d been quiet the rest of the trip, and as soon as they got back to school, she’d broken up with him. Aaron could still remember the pitying look she’d given him. It had taken her one evening to see what Dale hadn’t figured out in nearly fifteen years.
“It just didn’t work out, I guess,” Aaron said aloud.
“Huh.” Dale gave Aaron a scrutinizing look. “I had this idea you were going to marry her.”
Me too, Aaron thought.
Dale slung his around Aaron’s shoulders. “Okay, so no Dizzy’s, but it is Friday night. I’ve got my cooler in the back of the Bronco. You’re not too old for a beer in the parking lot.”
Aaron did his best to ignore the fluttering in his stomach. “Oh, yeah? When will I be too old for that?”
“When you’re dead. Come on.” He steered Aaron out the door, hurried him through locking up the store, and hustled him over to the Bronco.
Dale slid behind the wheel, and Aaron settled into the passenger side. Dale reached over the seat, fished around in the cooler, and came up with two Heinekens.
“I’m only having one,” Aaron said as he accepted the bottle.
“Mmm,” Dale said noncommittally. “Just one beer” amounted to heresy as far as he was concerned, a fact Aaron knew all too well.
“Have you given any thought to what you’re going to say if you get pulled over by the cops with that huge-ass cooler of beer in the car?”
“I really haven’t.” Dale angled in his seat to look at Aaron. “So, you’re really not going to come out with me tonight?”
“I’m really not.” Aaron took a sip of his beer. “I’ve still got the books to go over when I get home, and that’s going to take….” He shook his head. “I don’t know exactly, but way too long.”
Truthfully, he felt bad to be missing out on whatever shenanigans Dale had planned—and there would definitely be shenanigans, because there always were with Dale. This all-work-no-play thing had been happening way too often lately. Running the business without his father had proven a much bigger job than he’d anticipated. He spent almost every waking moment working at the store, thinking about the store, or feeling vaguely guilty he was somehow neglecting the store. He desperately needed some help, an assistant manager, somebody he could share the responsibilities with the way he and his dad used to do. Until he found the right person, though, he was stuck working long hours with no possibility of shenanigans in sight.
“I’m beginning to think you like that store more than me,” Dale said sulkily.
When Aaron first took over the business, Dale had been patient about it, or at least what passed for patient with him, but lately he seemed to be feeling neglected.
“You know that’s not true,” Aaron told him tiredly. “Things will be different when I can get some help.”
“Yeah, I know. You’ve just got to find the right person.” The words came out strangely clipped, and Aaron had no idea what that was about.
“Hey.” He nudged Dale with his elbow.
Dale turned a look on him, and slowly his expression softened. “Okay, but tomorrow is party night.” He pointed his finger at Aaron. “You’d better get your ass down to Dizzy’s. We’ve got a serious fun deficiency to make up for.”
Aaron smiled and tipped back his beer.